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ND's seat belt law: Burgum 'absolutely' supports change to boost enforcement

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum stands behind a poster for the state's new traffic safety initiative, Vision Zero, Thursday, Jan. 18, 2018, at the state Capitol in Bismarck. John Hageman / Forum News Service 1 / 2
Col. Michael Gerhart, superintendent of the North Dakota Highway Patrol, speaks during an event unveiling the state's new traffic safety initiative, Vision Zero, Thursday, Jan. 18, 2018 at the state Capitol in Bismarck. John Hageman / Forum News Service 2 / 2

BISMARCK -- Gov. Doug Burgum said Thursday, Jan. 18, he would support a change in state law to boost enforcement of seat belt use, a move that the head of the North Dakota Highway Patrol said would save lives but could face skepticism from lawmakers.

North Dakota is one of 15 states with a secondary seat belt law for adults in a vehicle's front seats, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association, meaning law enforcement officers may only issue a ticket for not wearing one when another traffic violation takes place. Changing that to a primary law would allow officers to ticket drivers and passengers for failing to wear a seat belt even if they didn’t commit another offense.

Burgum said he would “absolutely” support a primary seat belt law, a declaration that drew applause during an event unveiling the state’s new traffic safety initiative, dubbed “Vision Zero,” at the state Capitol.

Failure to wear a seat belt is the leading contributor of motor vehicle deaths in North Dakota. The state recorded 55 unbelted fatalities last year, accounting for 61 percent of deaths in which a seat belt was available, a Department of Transportation spokeswoman said.

“Whatever allows more people or encourages more people to wear their seat belt will make a difference in traffic safety,” said Col. Michael Gerhart, superintendent of the North Dakota Highway Patrol. But Burgum, a Republican, said there could be a “collision against the culture of personal freedom in North Dakota where there could be resistance to that.”

Republican state Sen. Lonnie Laffen, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said he wouldn’t support the change because of his libertarian leanings.

“I can’t imagine not wearing a seat belt, but at the same time I just don’t like seeing government rule everybody’s lives,” Laffen said.

Grand Forks Republican Rep. Mark Owens has tried passing legislation to make North Dakota a primary seat belt law state but said he encountered resistance from those who worried about restricting personal freedoms. Owens said the change could also help law enforcement catch drunk drivers. If an officer pulls over somebody for not wearing a seat belt and discovers they’re impaired, that prevents them “from running that stop sign 2 miles down the road where they were going to hit your aunt, your uncle, your sister, your brother had they not been stopped,” he said.

North Dakota law requires all front seat occupants to wear a seat belt, while those younger than 18 years old must be “properly restrained regardless of their location in a vehicle,” according to the Highway Patrol. Drivers may be stopped, however, if anyone in the vehicle under the age of 18 is not properly restrained.

In North Dakota, 81 percent of drivers and front seat passengers wear seat belts, compared with 86 percent nationally, according to 2012 figures cited by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Asked whether he wants tougher drunk driving policies, Burgum said he supports “whatever the best practices are that are going to help us get to zero” traffic fatalities. He said his administration will continue to meet with legislators to discuss policies that could turn into legislation proposed in the 2019 session.

The Vision Zero effort includes public education, working with lawmakers on state policy, “high visibility enforcement of existing laws,” technology advancements and infrastructure improvements, according to a news release. DOT Director Tom Sorel said the effort provides “a framework that guides all traffic safety initiatives in the state.”

“I believe we have the right conditions in our state, in North Dakota, to be the first state to zero,” he said.

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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